Political Career and Presidency of John F. Kennedy

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John F. Kennedy played both sides of the political fence during his congressional career, which resurfaced while he pursued his run for presidency. While in Congress, his support for a bill that would act as a major benefit for black Americans to vote was shadowed by his impotence to aid the effort to divert the provisions of the bill’s failure. His campaign manager and civil rights assistant, Harrison Wofford, provided a voice for the movement and was able to coerce the president to construct a single promise to end segregation in federal housing projects.

On the other hand, Southern governors warned Kennedy that if he supported the Civil Rights Movement and activists, the states represented would be thrown to Nixon. While president, he was quick to become blinded by his own programs, thus the space race and the Soviet Union became a priority. At this time, Kennedy also faced the issue that regarded withholding federal funds from both local and state businesses that discriminated against black Americans; however, he refused to sign these orders.

As his popularity decreased, the fear that he wouldn’t be reelected became a reality and he quickly returned to voting rights for black Americans as the new center of attention for his campaign strategy in 1961 and 1962. The Kennedy administration provided tax exemption and promised immunity from the draft for young black Americans that voted in favor of the Democratic ticket. Furthermore, he was quick to call off the Freedom Rides and protests, asserting that it was too dangerous. Over the course of his political career and presidential run that followed, John F. Kennedy opposed the Civil Rights Movement and was too slow to act on important issues involving the movement.

John F. Kennedy’s background in civil rights, or in a more accurate context his lack of background, took on a very important role to the future president of the United States. When his father was asked what his children thought about black Americans, Robert Kennedy replied, “we didn’t lie awake thinking about it, I don’t think it was a matter we were extra concerned about,” and this statement held truth for his brother John, as well. As an upper-class suburban family from Massachusetts, Kennedy did not have many relationships with black Americans as a young person and furthermore, even less in his congressional career.

As a congressperson, Kennedy’s record reflects the beginning of playing both sides. This reoccurring theme will play a large role throughout his congressional career and throughout his presidency. An early example of this would be his support of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, proposed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the provisions that gave the federal government a broad power to desegregate schools. This was a stepping stone in the rights for black Americans to vote throughout the country, however; he did not support the effort to divert the Senate Judiciary Committee and its segregationist chair James Eastland, Senator of Mississippi, who doomed many of the provisions of the bill’s failure.

At times, Kennedy would even agree to anti-civil rights positions and would take sponsorships from southern delegations, including Deep South states, such as Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. One of these sponsorships being from John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, who would play a large role in the Freedom Rides of 1961.

Kennedy’s main concern was the well-being for the state of Massachusetts. This makes sense because he was senator of the state from 1953 up until 1960; however, lawyer and politician Carl B. Stokes would postulate, “Kennedy was disdainful of the Congress, contemptuous of the men who served there, and he surrounded himself with men like himself, and so the style of the conduct of business was arrogant, often supercilious.”

During his 1960 campaign, he summarized his lack of knowledge on civil rights issues by saying, “You know I’m way behind on this because I’ve hardly known any blacks in my life. It isn’t an issue that I’ve thought about … I’ve got to learn a lot and I’ve got to catch up fast.” Congress, since it was not being appealed to in the traditional manner, through the trading of favors, the calling up of old debts or the creation of new ones, sat on his hands. It did not actively fight him, it just did nothing. The public were the losers.

As Kennedy played both ends against the middle in his congressional career, it soon resurfaced as he pursued his run for presidency. Kennedy sought the support of both black Americans and southern racists in the election of 1960. In seeking the black American support for his election, Kennedy hired Harris Wofford as presidential campaign member. This led to a more progressive shift in his support for black voters. He told Wofford that the campaign had no prior contact within the Civil Rights Movement. As Wofford said it, Kennedy “had done nothing…to convey any real connection with the movement for civil rights.” Wofford accepted the position in the campaign and provided the voice for the Civil Rights Movement by invigorating Kennedy’s public stance on the movement.

He would push the Kennedy administration and vocalize his affair with the president himself, postulating, “The only effective time for such moral leadership is during an occasion of moral crisis. This is the time when your [Kennedy’s] words would mean most.” Wofford was able to coerce the president to construct a single promise to end segregation in federal housing projects. An expression of words that would become famous across the nation, Kennedy promised to end all discrimination, “by the stroke of a president’s pen.” The phrase quickly became infamous as Kennedy would decline to even uncap the pen for over two years to sign the executive order. During his 1960 campaign, both sides pressured Kennedy.

Wofford pressed Kennedy to make strong statements about his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, three southern governors were warning him that if he supported Khrushchev, Jimmy Hoffa, or Martin Luther King Jr, the states represented would be thrown to Nixon. Kennedy slowly and visibly tried to increase his support with the Civil Rights Movement but at the same time, pursued the vote of the white south. He was able to enlist segregationist leaders across the south, two who would play very large parts in the Freedom Rides.

These familiar faces were Alabama Governor John Patterson and Mississippi Senator James Eastland. Robert Kennedy spoke on his brother’s behalf, stating that John approved of civil rights demonstrations only when they were “peaceful and legal.” Kennedy’s biggest move to pacify the South was his poor choice in vice president. Senator Kennedy assured the South that his choice in vice president would be made with the South in mind. According to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an American historian, Kennedy only picked Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson predominantly because of the effort he would put into the South. This stupefied future Freedom Riders, John Lewis and James Farmer. Farmer recalls, “I was extremely disappointed.

My position then was that this was a sop that was tossed to the South, and that this indicated that the administration was going to go slow on civil rights.” Martin Luther King Jr also started to doubt the intentions of Kennedy’s political agenda, worrying that he would accommodate the South and their needs. On the other hand, Alabama Governor John Patterson felt differently on this issue. He congratulated Kennedy on his vice president pick stating that it, “made it a lot easier for us to campaign for the Democratic ticket in Alabama.”

Transitioning into his presidency, Kennedy did not send strong signals about his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. A month into his first presidential term, he delivered his State of the Union Address, by devoting only one sentence to civil rights he said, “The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race-at the ballot box and elsewhere-disturbs the national conscience and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage.”

Not only was Kennedy slow to act on these obligations, he easily became irritated when civil rights issues were brought to his attention, such as in a February meeting during which the new president was angered by a liberal activist. Stokes suggested that, “he used the liberal and minority groups but was never truly their friend. History will hack away at his legend until the only thing left is the realization that he was the first of those of us who have learned to use the media well.” Kennedy also avoided an exclusive meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. because he did not want to be coerced into taking action. King would also not be invited to Kennedy’s inauguration.

Wofford, now Kennedy’s civil rights advisor, believed that this was due to his personal emphasis on international affairs. He said, “I think his chief concern then and… to the end of his life, was foreign policy and peace and relations with the Soviet Union.” Succeeding Kennedy’s campaign promises, Democrats in both House and Senate introduced legislation according to what Kennedy had promised pre-campaign. Instead of supporting these proposals, he was quick to shoot down and denounce his own plans. Kennedy made it clear that it was not smart to move forward with a civil rights legislation.

In a conversation between him and a staff director of the Commission on Civil Rights, Berl Bernhard, the president suggested to him and the commission that pushing for civil rights legislation would “poison an atmosphere which was already pretty bad.” Kennedy was not only resistant on pushing civil rights legislature; in 1961 he failed to take a position on a debate that would have made civil rights legislature easier to accomplish. Congressional Representative Paul Rogers, a Democrat of Florida, asserted that in 1961, “the president never put any pressure on civil rights opponents to support any civil rights legislation.”

In the end, civil rights advisor Harris Wofford had to say, “He was always greatly concerned with the degree to which civil rights issues, if thrown into Congress, would jeopardize all his other programs. I think that he… was quite intimidated by congress.” Stokes would agree with Wofford by saying, “The Kennedys understood the use of the executive power outside of dealing with Congress… He and Bobby gave us a bunch of racist Southern judges.”

One of his programs that he was concerned about was sending a human into space. The space program was increasingly growing larger and had no end in sight as there was a competition for the “space race” with the Soviet Union. “The President’s major emphasis was on the necessity of sending a man to the moon, and of getting him there first if possible.” President Kennedy’s affirmation on a space program and other programs would evidently lead to him setting his sights on a bigger picture other than the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, in response to the Kennedy administrations programs, Stokes believes that not only did they completely ignore the movement, they also brought the steel industry to its knees and used the Justice Department ruthlessly.

Kennedy desperately sought to avoid civil rights in all types of matters because he feared that he would not be reelected office. His desire to be reelected and politically popular created the need for him to hedge bets of the civil rights issue in 1960 and would continue throughout his presidency for the next two years. Civil rights legislation was too dangerous and hostile, causing Kennedy to tell civil rights leaders that he would exercise his power through executive orders. He felt that executive orders would be vague enough to not cause an uproar in the South.

Kennedy did stay true to his word by using this tactic; however, in most situations he was not timely. An example of this is the famous “stroke of the pen” promise that would end all federal housing segregation, that took two years to sign. He began to backpedal, appeasing the Southern bloc of Congress by assuring them that he did not intend to propose any new civil rights legislation. Kennedy’s straggle was angering civil rights activists even more: “Where’s the pen, Mr. President? That’s what we were asking. Why don’t you use the pen?” Other Ideas for executive orders that various staffers proposed in 1961 regarded the withholding of federal funds from both local and state individuals that discriminated against black Americans; however, Kennedy refused to sign these orders.

This included restaurants, bus services, and others that discriminated. Kennedy also failed to listen to his special assistant, Frederick Dutton, who nominated the plan that the administration could contribute to the desegregation of schools without force, legal action, or public efforts by targeting southern states that were dependent on federal funds. The plan was to privately approach business leaders and ask them to support school integration for the economic value of the city. Next, those business leaders would spread the message throughout the city to bring the growing main stream media into the concept.

Those businesses who were not on board with the idea would be held accountable and federal funds would be cut. Dutton emphasized, “The whole effort should be initiated quietly-with the gains for the administration… The lack of initial publicity will also let law enforcement, education, and other experts unobtrusively move into the selective areas.” Because this proposal was to bypass the courts and Congress, again Kennedy and the administration discarded the idea.

The unsuccessful attempts to push legislation through Congress meant that there needed to be a new focus to save Kennedy’s effort in the reelection bid, or what little he had, thus he returned to voting rights for black Americans as the new center of attention for his campaign strategy in 1961 and 1962. While the Kennedy administration were likely to benefit from these new voters, many civil rights activists believed that the entire voter registration effort was made with another benefit in mind, “to shift the power and disruption of the civil rights movement into less contentious activities.”

In the spring and summer of 1961, Freedom Riders were failing to make progress while unconstitutionally suffering in jails across Mississippi. Without any protest from the Kennedy administration, they continued to seek civil rights activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Kennedy told these groups that the administration would support the efforts of both groups by providing law enforcement and legal protection. Furthermore, the administration would provide tax exemption and even promised immunity from the draft if these groups found young black American voters.

This was a shock to these groups, as they were highly underfinanced. Kennedy felt strong that this was the way to accomplish the goals of the civil rights effort; although, the reaction was mixed among the activists. In reply to the offer, one SNCC member said, “we’re fighting a tiger and your trying to buy us off.” Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also had some very uncharitable words to say about the voter registration plan. He said that it was a foolish effort, especially within the Deep South. This is because without a federal voting rights act, the South would do anything in its efforts to neutralize black American voters.

Dorothy Height, women’s rights activist, recalls her experience: “President John F. Kennedy had challenged us to act for social change – to find the way to end domestic inequality, racism, and poverty.” Height believed that many of the white women she had spoken with around the South did not understand how young people could be so involved within the civil rights movement. The women would express concern about how the young were being used and put into the streets to fight what they considered to be an adult battle: “This concern demonstrated how distant the white women’s reality was from the front lines of the civil rights struggle raging around them.”

Lastly, Martin Luther King was concerned as well about the Kennedy administration and their plan. He felt as if the administration would focus on voter registration more than any other civil rights goals and strategies. He would say that, “I’ve always felt that, because of the complicated structure of the problem, we needed to travel down many lanes of this highway and not work with just one or two methods.” On October 19, 1960, King and 51 others were arrested in Atlanta during a sit-in protest after refusing to leave their seats. Coretta Scott King received a phone call that has been said to change history.

“I waited a few seconds, and a voice made familiar by scores of television broadcasts said, ‘good morning Mrs. King. This is Senator Kennedy.’” Greetings were exchanged, and concerns were addressed over King being in jail with a child on the way. “If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call me.” King was released from jail around noon the next day, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chartered a plane to bring him back home. Although she was very happy, in the back of her mind Coretta knew that the phone call from Kennedy would be used as political benefit. She said, “At the time I did not know quite how to react, because I realized that the phone call could be used to political advantage.”

The consequences of the Kennedy administration trying to ‘buy off’ voters became widespread. The South became angry and resisted the effort, while civil rights groups were in the backfire. The South responded with violence, threats, and discrimination to those who registered, thus pushing more obstacles in the way of the voter registration plan. It became clear that whatever the outcome be, the black voter registration proposal was aimed to gain more voters in favor of the Kennedy administration.

Cite this paper

Political Career and Presidency of John F. Kennedy. (2021, Jun 23). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/political-career-and-presidency-of-john-f-kennedy/

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